“Have you heard?” the pointy-nosed adolescent squealed softly under his purple buret. His scrawny fingers worked fluidly, equipping various hinges in the train’s engine compartment so as to better stoke the blue-red flames that anachronistically fueled our transport. If I didn’t know the specific time and place of our journey I might have thought the oxygenating licks a mere nostalgic ornament, a subtle nod to an indecisive prehistory where trains like these could not cut between places or swim underwater currents. The fact that the pilot was using the flame was disconcerting, but I pushed bad thoughts aside. I was prepared for this journey. I imagined the burning coals urged us toward the Baltic’s counterfactual place.
Nevertheless, a noisy dissonance grew in my ear like buzzing mosquitos in the frozen swamps of the Neo-Petrograd we’d left behind. Even though I knew where we were, it was my first approach to what my branch of psycho-consciousness theory regarded affectionately as the Alternate Tracks.
After my land journey northward to the former Window to the West, I’d found the station in the subterranean swamps beneath the frozen bay, also known as Alt-Leningrad (the city’s epithets mirrored the dualistic histories and visions). The perpetual train had set off under the ice, carrying me and its various passengers seeking alternate routes and venues for myriad scientific studies. Some desired alternate political horizons, while I sought a filtered lens to the newfound clues of consciousness’s origins.
The architecture of the train itself was an amalgamation of scientific breakthroughs and emergences, some so on the verge of indescribable as to be deemed alchemical by lay-person reporters. Waiting for our departure, the soundtrack’s nostalgic beat, a sound of the old trains with smokestacks from another, far-flung past, brought to the surface a comfort, just as a stranger’s smile can do. Humans are comfortable on trains, or there is something human about being on a train. We have trains of thought. But what does it mean to lose one’s train of thought? Why do we say, in the very next moment: now, where was I?
This getting lost and found in a fountain of thought was among my early realizations about consciousness and the unexplored terrain it potentialized, a pattern-matching of linguistics and the habits our mind takes. I pondered, If only one could train oneself in new habits. Train oneself. There was that word again…
My purple-hatted pilot had only hours before inspected my ticket, remarking on the undersea weather and on my bravery. I wondered where he’d gotten the cherry juice he licked from his finger. Its color matched the lips of my smiling neighbor, which comforted me, as a stranger’s smile can do. After exchanging smalltalk with her about my professional field’s signifying lapel pin, I’d stomached the courage to wade through the elite cabins of scientific notables cocktailing and enjoying cherry desserts. Frowning at a man already asleep with drunkenness in the corner, I soon found the engineroom door, where the pilot let me in.
When he’d taken my ticket in the main cabin, I’d assumed him a man, but then I saw his quick eyes and the smoothness of his facial skin. I started by asking what he’d meant by my bravery.
My question birthed wrinkles of curiosity, bringing too a gentle smirk to his crimson-tinged lips. “The Leninist pirates are threatening the alt-station,” he shrugged. “You’ve decided to make the crossing at an exciting time.”
This was troubling for three reasons. First, I hadn’t picked the time. No, that isn’t right. I had spent exceeding amounts of time in deliberation asking questions of my conscious (and when I was particularly lucid or attentive, my subsconscious): Could I leave my child’s mother alone to raise our son despite her meager employment as a constructionist machinist? Were my seven years of dual-track preparation sufficient to land on firm rails at the crossing? How sure were the weatherwatchers in their prediction analysis that the tracks would converge again, allowing my return?
Second, the prospect of losing my grip of control was nauseating, a semblance that at the time felt like flame tips whisking fleetingly through air. My father’s own sudden disappearance when I was a mere child and my mother’s hushed resilience was a memory and acquired attitude I couldn’t shake despite the awareness of its debilitating effect.
The third: Leninist pirates referred to an envisioned post-schism remade consciousness (stylized after the schism in opinion historians took of Lenin’s place in the Bolshevik Revolution two hundred years prior). Such people retained consciousness of an assembled manner, suggesting consciousness could exist fundamentally in parts or as a gradient. The ‘pirate’ bit of the description referred to their ability to detach portions of consciousness from unlucky hosts.
“Can you shut the flame hatch a moment?” I inquired, finding the room progressively hazy.
“I can do no such thing,” laughed the adolescent. He seemed slightly older then, as if masking malevolence with playful mockery. He tipped his buret to cover his face. The flame hatch ticked a segment further open and more smoke emerged. “What’s your business in the Alt-Baltic?”
Despite the increasing haze I momentarily tolerated his change of subject, only half-noticing the now-closed door to the engine room. “I’m investigating qualitative foundations. I’ve trained in panpsychist differentiation.”
He laughed again, this time playing with steampunk dials, leaving red tints from his cherry dessert, and adjusted a lever commanding a pully which in turn steadied the glass tank that let water in and out of our submarine train. I’d read in a paper there were bergs to navigate even this far south. Arising in my consciousness was the question: why had we put our lives in the hands of this adolescent? Were there not more capable professionals?
Perhaps seeing the concern on my rather older-looking-than-my-age-face, he quipped, “if we hit the jags of ice, women and children are first in the lifeboats.”
In response to my unmasked surprise, his face flickered younger still. He was a boy.
My training — or was it the mythology my father said I’d overindulged as a tyke? — alerted me to a particular brand of pirate along the Alt Tracks, a villain capable of maneovering consciousness to affect his age. Even this didn’t yet properly break my cognitive dissonance. Sometimes one does not appropriately recognize danger even when it rests on the edge of consciousness. I hadn’t prepared to use such professional faculties until after I arrived at alt-station.
Through the viewing portal I caught sight of a looming shadow, an approaching berg. I started to alert the pilot, but hesitated.
I suddenly remembered the drunk in the elite cabin. Like jolts in a halting train, I thought of my wife, and then my child. I didn’t want to disappear without a trace like my father.
Reaching for my lapel pin, I raised it before me. We would only be making the crossing if my talents in consciousness distinguishing could trick this man into not crashing our vessel.
I asked the only right question in this scenario. “Tell me,” I said, summoning a persuasion bordering on the hypnotic, my pin swaying before his eyes, “where are your thoughts arising from, right at this moment?” “This is the only way,” he produced in a strong baritone. But his voice faltered to a staccato flute “to prevent the secrets of Alt-Leningrad from getting out.”
His face changed from child to adolescent to adult and back. There was no time for deliberation. I continued my interrogation, knowing of no certainties, knowing only that we, myself and all the scientists aboard the perpetual train, stood a chance.
You can also read the same story here: https://medium.com/@decision_/consciousness-pirates-sci-fi-short-story-2e8db48ba4e7